"I would like to make something that is real in itself," [Arthur Dove] once wrote, "that does not remind anyone of any other thing, and that does not have to be explained like the letter A, for instance." And so, in a sense, he did. For Dove was the first American artist to paint a completely abstract picture, or rather a set of six; he did this in or around 1910, perhaps a little before Wassily Kandinsky's first abstract compositions. The difference, however, was that whereas Kandinsky's abstract work fell at once into a cultural context in Europe, Dove's had none. So his abstract paintings changed nothing. His work was twice orphaned, by the general indifference of American taste and by his own reclusiveness. Thus it never had the chance to be tested against the great arguments of metropolitan modernism; it remained a sequence of lyric meditations on nature, some beautiful, others clumsy and naive, but always isolated.
Dove's work was all about nature, from beginning to end. The son of a well-off brickmaker in Geneva, New York, he began his art career as an illustrator for the New York press and went, in 1907, on a year-and-a-half trip to Europe, spending most of it in Paris. There he fell in with the circle of American expatriates: Weber, Maurer, Bruce. Inspired by Fauvism, he exhibited at the Salon d'Automne in Paris in 1908 and 1909; typical of his early work was The Lobster, 1908, painted in Provence - by then thelocus classicus of Fauvism - and showing the influence of Cezanne in the heavy construction of the still life and of Matisse in its lush color and the twining, exuberant cabbage rose wallpaper behind.
This was Dove's only time in Paris. As soon as he got back to America he "went native," as he put it, spending much of his time camping in the wilderness. "I can claim no background," he once reflected, "except perhaps the woods, running streams, hunting, fishing, camping, the sky." Thereafter, landscape would dictate the essential forms of his work, and apart from the small, rather tentative abstractions of c. 1910 (some of which look like landscape anyway), there is hardly a painting by Dove that doesn't have some perceptible reference to landscape in it, whether in the earthen and green colors or the format ("sky" above, "land" below, sometimes with suns or just legible clouds, rocks, and foliage). Dove was immersed in nature. He wanted to be a farmer, and after his father in 1912 refused to support him with a stipend of one hundred dollars a month - "No, I won't do it, I won't encourage this madness," he exclaimed - he bought a farm in Connecticut and tried to make a living off it without much success. Later, in 1920, when he and his wife split up, he bought a yawl, the Mona, on which he lived for seven years sailing the waters of Long Island Sound along the Connecticut shore. These long experiences fed into his work, while isolating him from New York's small avant-garde circles. At the same time he felt that a rural or marine life didn't cut him out of the discourse. "What do we call 'America' outside of painting?" he asked a friend. "Inventiveness, restlessness, speed, change. Well, a painter may put all these qualities in a still life or an abstraction, and be going more native than another who sits quietly copying a skyscraper."
In 1913 Dove explained to a friend his process of abstraction (or, as he sometimes called it, "extraction"): the landscape slowly disappears like the Cheshire cat in the tree, leaving the "abstract" form behind.
The first step was to choose from nature a motif in color, and with that motif to paint from nature, the form still being objective.
In this way Dove believed he could arrive at "essences" that would transmit his sense of the spiritual in nature, the deep concern of his art. Such "essences" were shapes that symbolized different kinds of force, organic growth, and élan vital, suggesting (he thought) some inner principle of reality. His early abstractions, particularly the large pastel paintings on linen like Nature Symbolized, No. 2, 1911 are part of his effort to realize this. One can recognize its landscape basis - the round hill and high horizon line - but within it dance sail- and comma-like forms that lend the image a joyous vibrancy. It is in the same spirit as Kandinsky and Kupka. Perhaps because Dove's ideas about this were also in the American grain (they had been formed, in part, by his reading of Ralph Waldo Emerson), such early abstractions were tolerated by his American critics, though one journalist twitted him with the couplet "To show the pigeons would not do / And so he simply paints the coo."
The second step was to apply this same principle to form, the actual dependence on the object ... disappearing, and the means of expression becoming purely subjective.
After working for some time in this way, I no longer observed in the old way, and not only began to think subjectively but also to. remember certain sensations purely through their form and color, that is, by certain shapes, planes of light, or character lines determined by the meeting of such planes.
Actually, the coo mattered to Dove. He was interested in synesthesia - the possibility that sounds could be experienced and depicted as colors or shapes, an idea current in French Symbolist circles since the 1880s.Foghorns, 1929, represents the moaning of warning sirens in the Long Island mist as concentric rings of paint growing in lightening tones of grayed pink from a dark center: the bell mouths of the horns, their peculiar resonance, and the color of the fog are fused in one image.
Dove had a homespun side too, a folksy kind of buckeye humor that came out in the series of assemblages he did between 1924 and 1930, such as Portrait of Ralph Dusenberry, 1924. It has little in common withCubist collage - it is less formal and more anecdotal, with a side of the mouth twist, a few notches up from the kind of amateur driftwood-and-shell collages that were once a staple of seaside restaurants. It is unlikely that Dove ever saw a Schwitters, but this is a Yankee Merzbild, and the framing device - a folding wooden carpenter's rule - offers a laconic joke: how do you measure the fictional space of a work of art?
- Robert Hughes, from American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America